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Reading for Understanding

One of the most disturbing things I have seen in the aftermath of the shooting of Michael Brown and the protests in Ferguson was a Pew survey that indicated that only 37% of white people think that the shooting of Michael Brown raises issues of race. On one hand, I can’t comprehend what the other 63% are thinking. On the other hand, I understand all too well. Most Americans still live in segregated neighborhoods, and it is disturbingly easy to dismiss the concerns of people whose life experiences are different from your own.

Changing the segregation in our neighborhoods will take a long time, and frankly, I do not think we are even really trying yet. Luckily, we white people do not have to wait for integrated neighborhoods before we try to better understand the experiences of other people. We have a time-honored method of learning about other people’s lives: reading books. And there are so many wonderful, talented writers of color whose work we can read.

In this post, I will focus on Black writers whose writing has helped me understand the world a little bit better. I plan to write similar posts in the future highlighting the work of other groups of writers. I will also not restrict myself to works I've reviewed here before, or even to short form writing. This topic is too important to impose such limits.

However, the very first thing I will recommend is a book I've reviewed here: How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, by Kiese Laymon. The title essay is simply brilliant, and when I first read it I felt as if someone had opened a conduit in my mind that allowed me to feel a little bit of what it means to be a young Black man in America. If you read only one of the things I mention in this post, make it this one.

I recently re-read Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and it is even better than I remembered. Some of the injustices she and the other characters in the book experience would not happen now, but sadly some still would. Furthermore, most white people get a sanitized version of the history of racism in this country. This book is covers some of the history usually glossed over in our school books, disguised as a wonderfully told story of the early years of an amazing woman’s life.

The Last Black Man, by M. B. Munroe, is a short ebook set in England, but since it really takes place inside the head of a successful Black man, I suspect the themes it explores are equally relevant in America. Among other things, it shows the costs of succeeding in a white world that accepts you only as long as you make yourself acceptable to it.

Roxane Gay is one of my favorite essayists right now, and her new book Bad Feminist is as good as I expected it to be. The essays cover a lot of different topics, but include several good entries about race, and specifically how it intersects with gender. Gay’s writing is clear and concise, and she has a knack for cutting through confusion and really exposing the heart of the matter.

I was vaguely aware of the racial imbalance in our prisons, but reading the second half of Uprising, by Clarence B. Jones and Stuart Connelly really helped me understand what racism in our criminal justice system is doing to Black communities. This short ebook would be worth your time for the second half alone, but I think the history of the uprising at Attica that is covered in the first half helps put the second half into context, and again it is history that is largely absent from our school books.

Slavery was covered in my school books, but I don’t think I really understand how brutal it was until I read Kindred, by Octavia Butler. This book is about a modern Black woman who finds herself repeatedly transported back to the time of slavery. The story is so engrossing and suspenseful that I hardly noticed how it was changing my understanding of slavery until after I’d finished it. I highly recommend it.

This list is far from complete, because my own reading is far from complete. I haven’t even read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man yet! I will keep reading, though, so if you have more recommendations to add to this list, please put them in the comments.

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